Pygmalion : Novel Summary: Act 1

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Summary and Commentary on Preface

Shaw includes a preface to Pygmalion, as he did to all his plays. Shaw is known for his lengthy prefaces, stage directions, and commentaries. His collected prose alone fills several volumes. His style of drama is known as a “play of ideas,” in that he hopes to persuade or to make the audience think. Shaw was passionate about social reform, and all his plays represent criticism of various social problems, even though clothed most often in comedy and witty dialogue.

In this play Shaw tackles the class distinctions that are obvious in English society through the speech dialects. In the preface he complains that the English have no respect for language and do not teach their children to speak properly. Their numerous dialects allow them to distinguish and despise one another as soon as they open their mouths to reveal their class background and where they live. The science of phonetics should be able to make these distinctions obsolete.

Shaw mentions the progress made in the field with phonetic transcription, the ability to write the actual sounds people make, rather than to write in terms of conventional spelling that does not convey what people actually say. He mentions Bell's Visible Speech, a phonetic language invented by Alexander Melville Bell, the father of Alexander Graham Bell, who invented the telephone. The main character in this play, Professor Higgins, a phonetics professor, is partly modeled on the historical Oxford Professor Henry Sweet (1845-1912) a brilliant philologist in the field of Germanic languages and Old English. He also published on phonetics, A Handbook of Phonetics (1877), and A Primer of Spoken English(1890), describing London dialects in phonetic script. He was a pioneer but not very diplomatic or genial as a person. Sweet, like Higgins, was a bachelor and sent postcards to people in shorthand. Because of his bluntness, he was not promoted at Oxford.  

In his preface, Shaw admits that as a playwright he is didactic, but that is because he believes true art is didactic (teaches) and that phonetics could transform lives, as it transforms Eliza Doolittle's life in this play. It already happens that anyone from a lower class or foreign background who wants a better job has to learn English all over again. They need to learn from an expert, Shaw stresses, for phonetics is a science.


Summary of Act One

In Covent Garden in London, a crowd just out of the theater in evening dress seeks shelter in the portico of St. Paul's church because it is raining. A woman and her daughter complain: they sent the son Freddy to get a cab, and he came back without one. The mother says he is hopeless, and sends him out again. This time he runs into a flower girl selling flowers to the crowd, and the flowers in her basket are thrown in the mud. She exclaims, “Freddy: look wh' y' gowin” (p. 15). The mother is concerned that this flower girl knows her son and asks the young woman, who is dirty and ill-clothed, how she knows her son's name. She says she does not know him; she calls all men Freddy or Charlie. The relieved mother buys some flowers from her. Just then a gentleman rushes out of the rain, and the flower girl tries to sell him a flower. He gives her the small change he has. A bystander tells her to be careful to give him a flower, because there is a man behind the column taking down every word she is saying.

The flower girl starts protesting she is not breaking the law. The crowd starts talking about this, many taking the flower girl's side against what they think is a plain clothes policeman or a “copper's nark” (informer). The notetaker comes forward and shows the flower girl what he wrote as he reads it back to her in her lower-class dialect. She says she cannot read what he wrote (it is in phonetic transcription). The gentleman interrupts and tells the notetaker he does not need protection from the flower girl. The notetaker begins telling everyone in the crowd where they come from: the flower girl is from Lisson Grove, the bystander from Hoxton (lower-class neighborhoods), the gentleman is from Cheltenham, Harrow, Cambridge, and India, while the upper-class mother is from Epsom. The gentleman asks the notetaker how he can identify where people come from, and he answers, by phonetics, the science of speech. He can place people within six miles of where they live, sometimes within two streets, in London.

This is a time (early twentieth century) when people change their living conditions and fortunes. They may start in Kentish town and advance to Park Lane, says the notetaker, but their speech comes with them, unless they learn how to speak proper English. The notetaker scolds the flower girl for her speech. He tells the gentleman that this woman's dialect will keep her in the gutter her whole life, while he could teach her proper English. He could even pass her off as a duchess at an ambassador's garden party. The gentleman introduces himself as Colonel Pickering, author of Spoken Sanskrit, while the notetaker reveals himself as Henry Higgins,the author of Higgin's Universal Alphabet.

The two linguists were on their way to meet each other and Higgins tells his address, 27 A Wimpole Street, and invites Pickering to stay with him. The flower girl asks Higgins to buy a flower, and he is exasperated until the church bell sounds, and he remembers to have charity. He throws a lot of money in her basket. The two men leave. Freddy returns with a taxi, but his mother and sister have gone to take a bus, so the flower girl, now feeling rich, decides to take a taxi home. She tells the driver Buckingham Palace for an address because she is ashamed to have the gentleman Freddy hear her say her real address, Angel Court, Drury Lane, next to Meikeljohn's oil shop. She goes to her poor room there, with its loose wallpaper, and a gas meter that requires coins. She is cold and sleeps in her clothes.


Commentary on Act One

The different scenes within an act do not have separate numbers. A line of asterisks announces a scene change, moving quickly, somewhat like a film cut. As the scene changes from Covent Garden to Eliza's room, for instance, there are asterisks, and Shaw goes to great length with stage directions to describe in prose the new surroundings, as though reverting to fiction or a film treatment in the middle of the play. This is a great help to readers and actors for visualizing scenes and understanding the characters.

The first scene in Covent Garden allows for the English classes to mix physically and in terms of speech to illustrate class difference. Higgins is a bit ruthless in the way he insults the flower girl, but her speech, behavior, and dress show that she really is living little more than animal life. She is dirty, defensive, and looks at the people around her only in terms of what crumbs she might pick up from them to survive. After Higgins explains to Pickering why they have money and education, and the flower girl has nothing, in terms of class and dialect, the scene changes to the flower girl's room to corroborate his diagnosis.

The two educated and celebrated men live in a different world, have different thoughts, and different speech. There is almost no way to bridge the gap, and the first scene makes this clear. Higgins tries to tell the flower girl, Eliza, that her language is the same language as Shakespeare's and Milton's and that language should express the soul. She looks on in awe, trying to imagine what he means. For the poor, language is primarily for survival. Yet Higgins clearly sees that people are not stuck in their hereditary places. This is the modern world where an individual can rise through business and talent. He has helped people rise by teaching them an educated English that effectively erases the evidence of their roots in the lower class. He thinks that language is not only poetry, but also a science, and he is proud of being a scientist of language, able to perform miracles in transforming lives, as a doctor might be proud of saving lives.

This pride is an important clue to Higgins's character. In many ways, he is conservative and stuffy and something of a snob. He is of a high enough class that he does not need to observe class distinctions, but he assumes his class privileges. He looks down on others who are not intellectual or educated, even on the vulgar rich.

Higgins believes in what many linguists today do not believe in: standard or proper English. He believes there is a proper English and that someone like Eliza is committing a crime against nature when she pronounces words differently than he does, for instance, dropping her “h”s. Today this idea does not hold weight. Many great writers have chosen to write in dialect, and films in dialect are popular. The lower-class Souse accent of Liverpool was made popular by the Beatles, who were wealthier and more famous than a dozen Professor Higgins. Dialect and accent are not the barriers they were to social advancement in Shaw's day. Yet, Shaw's idea has been adopted in another way. Students are encouraged to be “bilingual” in terms of knowing both their own dialect and standard English because it is still the measure of success in the fields of business, education, communication, and science to be able to speak and write a formal English as a common denominator, not because “standard” English is the only right way.

Higgins is an idealist. He speaks of soul in several passages in a poetic mood, as if he is crusading. He does not notice the mundane facts of life. He does not believe in society's norms and claims to be free to do as he believes. He is not impressed by rank. He is interested in social reform and wants to apply his linguistic research to erasing class distinction in speech.

On the other hand, Higgins behaves like a lower-class person or a child, in terms of lack of courtesy, his arrogance, and his vulgar speech. Far from being a model of perfect English, Higgins is rude and swears. He is also something of a bully as we see even in the first scene, in the way he berates the flower girl for being ignorant. He and Pickering are two of a kind in that they are married to their professions. Pickering, however, will be shown to have more manners and human feeling than Higgins.

The first scene is important in establishing the flower girl's origins and lower-class speech, so that the transformational process will be highlighted when she becomes a lady with beautiful English in a few months. The first scene is also the dramatic incitement when Higgins boasts he could change Eliza into a lady, and she for one, takes him seriously.

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